Video games, time, and the labor market

FullSizeRender-11Video games are a fun way to spend the time. I spent many a happy hour as a kid trying to beat Super Mario Brothers, the game that came with the Nintendo console (I finally succeeded, rescuing the princess. Go me.) They are also a very addictive way to spend time, keeping the player in a boosted psychological state where he/she is stimulated, getting constant feedback on his/her actions, and making progress. Such a confluence of stimuli is rare in the real world. This may be playing out in the larger population in some unfortunate ways.

That's the argument made by Erik Hurst in his convocation address at the University of Chicago last spring, later adapted into this essay. I had heard about this argument but finally got around to reading it after another weekend when I realized my 7-year-old in particular just might play video games constantly if I didn't intervene. I require certain amounts of homework, and reading, and playing outside, and inside with non-screen activities, and music practice and other such things perceived as un-fun, at least compared with video games. Hurst notes that his 12-year-old son would play video games 23.5 hours a day if left to his own devices. While that might be pushing it, I have seen time logs from fairly intense gamers and yes, it can go deep into the night.

Our pre-teen boys are still under our thumbs, and in truth, Hurst and my kids will likely be fine in the long run even if they do play a lot of video games. As Hurst explains, everyone makes certain decisions about how much time to devote to work and leisure in life, based on the price of each. All of us like leisure, but if you can earn enough money, you tend to be willing to sacrifice an hour of leisure for an hour of work, up to a certain point.

But for some people, the value of an hour of work is a lot lower. It is no secret that people with lower levels of education have had a rough time in the current economy. Technology and globalization and all sorts of other things have reduced the demand for labor among men with less than a college education. Hurst notes that labor force participation for working age men without a college education has fallen from 84 percent in 2000 to under 77 percent in 2015. For lower-skilled men in their 20s, the drop was 82 percent to 72 percent — even more. While that might be fine if there was a corresponding rise in school attendance, Hurst says there was not.

So how are these men managing to survive? According to Hurst, recent data show that 51 percent of lower-skilled men in their 20s have moved in with a relative. Not surprisingly, Hurst notes, the average age of marriage for this group is climbing.

So if they're not working or raising families, what are they doing more of? Spending time on video games. Hurst calculates that young men in this group have 4 more hours of leisure time per week than they had in 2000. Three hours of this rise were spent on video games.

Video games are a very fun way to spend leisure time. Indeed, they are so pleasant as to make a person value leisure more. So as the price of an hour of labor has fallen, the value of leisure has risen. It's a recipe for not being very attached to the labor force. Intriguingly, though, it's also not a recipe for misery, at least in the short run. In general, young men aren't less happy than they were a few decades ago, despite working less (with work historically being associated with men’s life satisfaction). While it sounds sad to be living in a relative's basement playing video games, at any given moment, you're playing video games. Which is fun.

It's a jarring picture. To be fair, there are always arguments about technology taking people away from the real world. Time magazine recently ran a very depressing cover story about some proportion of young men lacking interest in sex with real women, if you can believe that, because of the availability of pornography. As one commentator explained it, it's the difference between dining out on filet mignon, and cereal for dinner. Yes, the steak is superior in every single way. But, you know, the Cheerios are already in your pantry. So, kids these days. Eating cereal for dinner! I never like the "kids these days" element of any argument. But there may be something to it too.

In any case, I have been pondering how to deal with the fact that video games will consume as much time as I let them take for some of my kids. What are the rules on video games in your house?

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27 Responses to Video games, time, and the labor market


  1. Kathleen says:

    Our kindergartner can play his Lego video games or Mario Cart around 7 pm after finishing homework and cleaning up his real-life Legos. His little brother joins. They probably play for about 30-60 minutes daily, which I know would horrify some people… but so did their dad and uncle at their ages, and they’re now responsible guys with MBAs and stock options and programming skills.

  2. The rules are no screens until chores and schoolwork are done and time spent outside. It’s actually my girls who I have more trouble with in this regard. I regularly have to remove their devices for disobeying the rules. The boys occasionally play Minecraft with buddies or each other, which I don’t mind so much, especially since there’s communication during the games. We haven’t had much of a problem with addiction.

    When it comes to that other screentime issue you mentioned, we’ve talked with our boys a lot about how porn is causing a huge problem of erectile dysfunction among young men and that they could be robbing themselves and their partners of a normal sexual life in the future. That seems pretty horrifying to them!

    • @Carrie – as a mother of sons, I found that Time article incredibly depressing. But I do agree that it is a wise thing to warn young men about. One might hope that they would avoid pornography because they object to the degradation of women BUT the erectile dysfunction argument is probably more effective.

      • Danielle says:

        Oh dear, yes!

  3. Marci says:

    When my son was in elementary school, he had a limit of 30 minutes per day, with more allowed if friends came over for a sleepover and/or the weather prevented outdoor play. His circle of friends had similar limits and busy sports schedules, and they usually found other things to do. They did have a friend, however, who quit socializing in order to play video games and eventually saw a therapist who described him as addicted. He was a cautionary tale, of sorts, for the social group because they lost a friend who preferred the virtual world over real life.

    My daughter never got into video games, but her social media/texting are just as addictive. She didn’t get a smart phone until 9th grade, but now she’s constantly on it to the point that her grades have suffered. Because she’s older, I didn’t want to just take her phone away or try to babysit the number of minutes she was on it. Instead, we talked about how she can develop self-discipline to focus on her schoolwork. She wants to go to college so she was motivated to come up with her own solution; she now puts her phone out of sight until homework is done. As many of us know, it’s too easy to check messages and spend the rest of the night getting sucked into social media and other low-priority reading.

  4. DVStudent says:

    I wasn’t allowed to play a single video game growing up (Indian parents and all 🙂 ) -a decision I now suspect also had financial reasons behind it-those games are expensive!

    That being said, one of my med school professors always attributes video game predilection as a predictor of who will be going into surgery. I have no idea if it’s true or not, but I do know that I don’t ever want to set foot in an OR.

    • @DVstudent- there might be something to this – being able to do quick small fine motor actions with confidence would be quite helpful for surgery. And probably even more so as more surgery becomes robotic.
      I am sure you’d make a great surgeon if you wanted to be one, though, even without the video game experience!

    • OMDG says:

      @DV Video games are also useful for driving a bronchoscope, or any other instrument with a tiny camera on the end. No surgery residency required!

      • Ana says:

        Despite the Indian parents (we rented them from the video store) I played TONS of video games as a kid but I’m older than you and the games were more 2D at the time. I had NO interest in surgery. I think the newer 3D games are much more similar to driving a scope.

        • Omdg says:

          Yeah I agree with this. Excitebike and super Mario brothers #1 were not nearly as helpful as Mario 64 for this. Still fun though. I did have a friend in HS who played 3D games, but they were brand new back then.

  5. Lisa says:

    Our kids are allowed 1.5 hours of screentime per day, but have to do homework first and sometimes a chore or two. They often don’t actually have that much time available, since we also expect TV time to end at 8 pm (the preteen and teenager get a little longer), but it’s easier to allow them to time technically and for them to figure out on their own that they don’t really get that much on school days.

    We also have phone/laptop rules. For the 7th grader with a phone, the phone goes to bed downstairs at 8pm, and the high schooler’s phone or laptop goes to bed downstairs at 9 pm on school nights. Both kids sleep upstairs, so the phone/laptop isn’t in the bedroom at night.

    • @Lisa- I like this way of putting it, that the phone has a bedtime and a sleeping location as well. Separate from the kid!

  6. Byrd says:

    We’re not to video game age yet (have a toddler) but this made me wonder: how do you teach time management to kids? specifically your kids? Maybe you’ve covered this somewhere already. 🙂

    • @Byrd (and others) – time management for kids is an interesting topic. I have not really written about it. Partly that’s because I have no idea if what I’m doing “works” – my kids are very young. Certainly there are some lessons: not leaving homework for the last minute, pacing longer projects, doing homework and music practice on a regular basis before TV and such. I’m having my 9-year-old look at his swim and karate schedule and figure out how they can fit together. I’ll likely write more about this in the future.

  7. Meghan says:

    My thought when I read this part of your post, “It’s a recipe for not being very attached to the labor force. Intriguingly, though, it’s also not a recipe for misery, at least in the short run,” was, “Well, THEY may not be miserable, but I’d bet the family members they’re mooching off of sure are!” I can’t imagine my parents sitting still for my brother or me moving back in, gaining an extra 4 hours a day by living off of them, and spending 75% of that time on video games! I sure wouldn’t. My boys — 6 and 4 — are only allowed to play videogames when my brother visits, and we only have an original NES. I’m pretty draconian with screen time anyway, so it works for us. I feel like limiting screens to Friday night movie and a few hours total on weekends makes them much more effective when I need to use them in emergencies (client meeting on a day with no school, for example).
    *
    I like Marci’s story above about helping her teenage daughter figure out how to manage her own time. Filing that one away for the future for sure!

    • @Meghan – hard to know what the relatives think! (To be fair, over the population it’s 4 hours *per week* of extra leisure – though for people who aren’t working, and aren’t caring for family members, there won’t be much besides leisure going on! Definitely more than 4 hours a day there).

      Hurst argues that in the long run it is a recipe for misery, if in the present it’s fun. People cannot stay in their 20s and living in relatives’ basements forever. Eventually people will have to support themselves and possibly family members and if they have not spent their 20s building up work experience, life will just be that much harder. And we can’t all be Dan TDM, making millions off filming ourselves playing games…

  8. EB says:

    We’re behind in the technology department. I “blame” the Montessori pre-school experience my kids have went/are going through. 🙂 Ignorance is bliss because my first grader doesn’t even know video games exist at this point, so I don’t have to deal with him constantly asking/negotiating to play them. Additionally we’ve held off because my first grader is my oldest, and we have two more behind him. So I know if he plays now, then the other two will start even younger.

    But I do wonder if there we are setting our kids up for being behind in technology. I know they don’t teach “keyboarding” as a subject now in his school district. I have heard that it’s partly because (a) they’ll learn it on their own and (b) kids use handheld devices and iPads more than keyboards at this point, so not really necessary to spend time teaching the qwerty keyboard. (Not sure if I buy that last point, but then again I’m behind in technology! iPads are an airplane-only thing to pull out when we need our kids to behave around others. We don’t even let them use it on 12-hour car trips at this point!)

    • Jen says:

      Hey EB – our strategy is most similar to yours, though our oldest kids (twins) are not yet in kindergarten. I think it helps us that our one iPad – used mostly by my husband – is basically dead and we are not planning to replace it. That just leaves our phones, and I hardly use mine at home. Our twins get to watch a movie each weekend day, and occasionally a 20-minute TV episode during the week, but they do pretty well with restricted screen time.

      I am pretty anti-screens myself (except at work!) and would much rather read in the evenings than watch something. I hope they’re learning something from my example. I confess to being nervous about how to regulate screens when they are older and much more aware and interested in the options.

      • @Jen – it is kind of hard to avoid as they get older. Many of their friends will talk about and socialize via games (group playing is common). Also, it’s hard to avoid screens in many districts because the kids are assigned such work. My kids have homework to play Dream box and other math programs for practice (if a family didn’t have a computer or device there are programs to help with access).

        There are some interesting things kids learn from games. My boys have been playing this game called Theme Park tycoon – they build amusement parks and can’t build a new ride until they bring in enough revenue, which goes up or down based on various factors. A good economics lesson, if nothing else.

        • Jen says:

          Yeah, I know it is inevitable and certainly has some positive aspects, but my current strategy is delay, delay, delay. If I can minimize their use until there’s no avoiding them, well, at least they will have hopefully built up some “muscle memory” of their screen-free years.

  9. ARC says:

    Reading this with interest, as we are trying to figure out a good way to manage screen time. We mostly restrict the girls’ time on their Kindle tablets to Friday afternoon-Sunday and only once homework is done for our older one. Occasionally we’ll give the tablet to our 4yo during the week while her sister is having her Skype Spanish class, so the 4yo is quiet and doesn’t keep trying to bug her sister 😉 They love Minecraft but are pretty self-regulating – they’ll play for an hour or so and then go do something else.

  10. I think the key here is what Marci says about time management, not so much the games themselves.

    My 13yo son would be an addict if we let him (and we have historically let him play more than most parents). We are restricting him with rules about what else he has to get done first, and particular times when games are not allowed at all.

    The video games he plays are better entertainment (and even flow) than candy crush might be, but they have the same sugar effect – fun while you are playing them, but ephemeral. Even if having to earn money in the future wasn’t an issue, I don’t think they are good for long term happiness – slightly better than TV but not that much.

    My boys read books on their ipads (kindle) so given they like to read in bed we have to govern their behaviour rather than taking their devices away entirely, which is harder, but ultimately probably better for their own development.

    The other issue I find with modern gaming for the teenage boy is that it is also the time you spend hanging out with your friends. So if we restrict his gaming we are restricting his friends time. That meant it took us longer to restrict than it should have (because we were very pleased he was hanging out with his friends, even virtually).

    No conclusions from this random set of thoughts, but I agree with others, I would love tips for teaching teenagers about time management!

  11. OMDG says:

    Personally, I love video games. I played a lot when I was attending a (not very difficult) junior high school. That said, the quarter I got an N64 in college was when I got my lowest grades. They are fun, but can really suck time away from other more fruitful pursuits. Not yet sure how we’re going to handle this with our daughter.

  12. Andrea says:

    Our 4th grade son would play video games as much as possible and it’s the source of great frustration, even though we have set rules which include no screen time during the school week, and only limited in the afternoons on Fri-Sun.

    The bigger issue for us, other than wasting time sitting on the couch, is how he behaves/reacts after he’s played the games and/or watched TV. If he plays video games before a sporting event, he has a hard time staying on task to get ready, and his reaction times seem slower. He seems to be in a fog and his mind is elsewhere, when he is normally a very competitive player. Also, playing video games or watching T V in the AM generally sets us up for a long day of negotiating (he wants more and is very persistent). He frankly acknowledges that he always wants more and for him it’s addicting, so it’s a situation we constantly monitor.

    We always have a summertime screen detox for 3-4 weeks where we’re completely screen free. This allows the kids the freedom to try other things, do projects, play outside, hang out with friends, etc., without the thought of “when can I play video games/watchTV” hanging over their heads. After the initial resistance, both the 10 yo (son) and nearly 13 yo (daughter) admit they enjoy the break and actually prefer doing other things.

    As kids get older (middle school for us) computer access is required for homework. I feel it’s a positive thing that teaches kids about technology while creating an opportunity to learn time management discipline. I may change my tune when my son reaches this stage!

  13. Nick Colakovic says:

    As much as I liked video games, I still liked more going outside and playing in ‘real time’ face-to-face with friends. On the other hand, some friends of mine are still playing every day. There are also teenagers that actually earn good money by streaming their gameplay.
    So, I believe that as long as you show your boys that there are other fun things to do except gaming and limit their screen time, they’ll be good.

  14. Natalie Williams says:

    This is such a gray area at our house. My son loves MIT’s Scratch website and could spend hours on it. Should it count as recreational screen time if he is learning programming fundamentals while he plays?

    • @Natalie- I agree this is a gray area, which is why it’s a struggle. The goal is moderation and higher quality games in the moderate quantity of time. Because some games do teach useful skills (math, economics, programming) and it is how a lot of little boys (probably little girls too, though it seems to be slightly less of a thing) socialize and learn team work.

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